How Dangerous Is The Million Dollar Highway?

Scenic drives are such a treat. Whether in a convertible or with the windows down there’s just something freeing about feeling the hugs of a curve and the wind through your hair. The US has many scenic drives, and of these the Million Dollar Highway or Highway to Hell is one of the most famous. Take a ride with us today to learn more about this incredible, and sometimes insane, route.

how dangerous is million dollar highway

(photo: Reinhard Schön)

Million Dollar Highway Basics

The Million Dollar Highway stretches about 25 miles through Colorado and is formally known as U.S. 550 but got its name from the original 12 miles that were hand-carved by Otto Mears in the latter half of the 19th century. He dug this route to transport ore from Silverton to Ouray where it could be moved by train.

Lots of myths surround the nickname of the highway, but its genesis is most likely from a comment made at a planning meeting in 1921. The goal of the meeting was to rebuild the highway. As contracts for the work were reviewed someone commented that the work would add up to about a million dollars. He kept referring to the road is “this million dollar highway” and voila!

The highway runs 25 miles from Silverton to Ouray Colorado. Despite being called a highway, though, it takes 42 minutes to drive. This is because the road has some serious turns. We’re talking “take ‘em at ten miles per hour hairpin turns” turns! On top of that, the speed limit is also low, around 25 miles per hour with many of the turns marked at 10.

An Exhilarating Ride

Take our word for it: this drive is not for new or nervous drivers and should certainly be avoided during rain, snow and ice. The snow season, the most dangerous time to drive the Million Dollar Highway, starts in October. While the highway is open year-long except during the most serious of storms, weather conditions in the mountains change rapidly.

Dangers of the road present themselves in a few ways. There are large sections with sheer drop offs and no guardrails, narrow sections and hairpin turns. Drivers must concentrate and keep an eye out in order to avoid mishaps, none of which are likely to be minor. One of the biggest risks is not slowing down enough going into the guardrail-less turns.

Why aren’t there guardrails? The area gets significant amounts of snowfall and because the roads are so narrow, plows must push the snow off the cliffs to keep the road open.

million dollar highway

( Cenla Aerial Imagery)

Accidents on the Million Dollar Highway

There are about 40 accidents a year, with around seven fatalities, on the Highway to Hell. Interestingly, many of these occur in dry conditions and only involve one vehicle. These are usually the result of careless driving.

Accidents are caused by several factors in addition to driver error. While no longer an issue since activating a system to warn about them, avalanches used to be a culprit. Mudslides can also occur.

Another issue is wildlife. At dawn and dusk when animals are most mobile, surprised drivers may swerve to avoid hitting an animal. Unfortunately, there’s nowhere to swerve.

While not all accidents on the Highway result in deaths, drops off the side are particularly dangerous. In December of 2018, there were back-to-back accidents with cars going off one of the steep, unguarded cliffs.

First, a car went off the road killing the driver who was the sole occupant. Then a non-fatal accident occurred. A car with two people went off the cliff, landing upside down. One passenger was not wearing a seatbelt and was seriously injured. In addition, the two passengers had to wait hours for help. Temps were freezing and they were unable to extricate themselves.

Safe Driving Tips for the Million Dollar Highway

Mountain driving is no easy feat, especially a mountain road like the Million Dollar Highway. That said, it’s completely doable and a normal commute for many locals. It’s all about being smart. Here are our tips for driving the road.

  1. Get your vehicle checked first. Don’t take an unreliable car or truck and make sure that you have your brakes, tires and everything else checked first.
  2. Check the weather. The weather can change in an instant but that doesn’t mean to disregard the reports. This road should be avoided by those unfamiliar with it in snowy, icy and wet conditions.
  3. Cut the distractions. Make a good playlist but silence the notifications on your phone. Drivers should never look at their phones while driving but especially not on a road like this one where taking your eyes off the road for even a portion of a second could have deadly consequences.
  4. Move over n00bs. Experienced drivers who can make quick decisions and handle precarious situations should be behind the wheel. Newer drivers haven’t had to deal with as much: from other drivers to wildlife to those hairpin turns.
  5. Follow all posted signs. Yes, the speed limit is often 15 mph. There’s a reason for it. Slow down, slow down, slow down. The road is gorgeous and holds incredible wonders. Slow down and let your passenger enjoy them. Speaking of which…
  6. Eyes on the road. The driver should remain focused on the drive, not the scenery. It’s short enough that it can be driven twice so that everyone can enjoy the crazy views and dropoffs.

The Million Dollar Highway is a popular drive added to “must drive” lists for a reason: its grandeur is something to behold. It’s definitely worth putting on your list, just be smart about it!

Mariska Lee

Mariska is a recovering attorney who gave up her professional job to discover new perspectives of life while traveling in a 2009 Ford Transit. She has been living the van life for 3 years and has not looked back since.

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